Best-selling author Pat Conroy will become editor-at-large for a new fiction series offered by the University of South Carolina Press — a series Conroy says just might prevent the demise of the Great American Novel and help repay the debt he owes to the state that has made him famous for fiction-writing.
The first book in the new Story River Books series won’t appear until 2014, but Conroy was so excited by the “seductive powers” of the series that he volunteered his name and his services during a recent lunch with press director Jonathan Haupt.
It came as a happy coincidence that Haupt had named the nascent series after a river Conroy went swimming in as a kid, he says. That river ran along Fripp Island. Today, Conroy lives in Beaufort.
“We could start something that could maybe become a center . . . for terrific stories that can’t get heard in any other way,” says Conroy, 67. “This is going to be one of those (efforts) that saves the novel in this country.
“(That) they’re doing fiction at the USC Press seems amazing to me, and wonderful.”
University, or “academic,” presses usually are known for nonfiction, often histories. Story River Books will publish fiction with universal appeal but rooted in South Carolina, including novels and short-story collections.
Conroy frequently cites his love of South Carolina people and geography for the success of his rich prose.
“Literature can choose anywhere it wants to be born,” he says, “anywhere the sting and loveliness of language goes to dwell.
“I want Story River Books to find and nurture those voices, and for writers young and old in this infinitely variable state to be recognized and heard. , . . . Stories matter in a state like South Carolina . . .”
He cites the successes of such S.C. authors as Charleston novelist Josephine Humphries, Clemson graduate Ron Rash and coastal turtle lover Mary Alice Munroe and says he knows at least “50 other S.C. writers I haven’t mentioned” who together share “a powerful literary voice reverberating around the world” — a voice he wants to shape and sharpen.
Conroy’s own stories have ranged from his tales of a fledgling schoolteacher on Daufuskie Island — pure autobiography — to the autobiographical fiction of “The Great Santini,” which chronicled his life as the son of a less-than-perfect father who flew fighter jets out of Beaufort Naval Air Station and that of the naïve college boy who encountered intrigue and bigotry at a military school modeled after Conroy’s own alma mater, The Citadel.
Characters throughout Conroy’s fiction mirror the successes and pains encountered by other members of his family, from poetry-writing to suicide.
Always, the stories have revolved around the Palmetto State.
“What I owe South Carolina is not repayable,” Conroy says simply. “I started out as a kid in Beaufort who wanted to be a writer, and I didn’t have the slightest notion of how to become one.
“With this new fiction series, . . . I can help bring out voices and stories from this state that might not be heard otherwise . . .”
Conroy says he will recruit writers, help decide which fiction the press publishes and shepherd authors through the editing process — something he says will amuse editors familiar with his own “bloated, inflated prose style.”
But Conroy becomes dead serious when he discusses what the new venture could do for “mid-list” authors — something Conroy says he was “for most of my life” — those who don’t write the vampire or zombie novels today’s big publishers seem to relish.
“We know ‘old’ publishing is in trouble and possibly doomed,” says Conroy, whose own books bear the logo of “old” publishers.
“Traditional publishing has been bought by the corporations” and now look only at the bottom line — not the quality of storytelling.
“The books I was reading (as a kid) or the books I wrote, I could not get published right now.”
USC Press has been “kicking around” the idea of a fiction series that would publish novels and short-story collections for about a year, Haupt says. Its role will be different from — and complementary to — that of Hub City Press in Spartanburg, which offers a “first novel” prize and works to uncover unheralded talent.
“I do think we will discover new talent,” Haupt says, “but that’s not the only thing that will happen.”
Betsy Teter, Haupt’s counterpart at Hub City, welcomes news of the new series, calling it “yet another opportunity for South Carolina fiction writers.”
Haupt says that submissions have begun arriving as word of Conroy’s participation leaks out — including inquiries by well-known South Carolina authors.
USC Press will release its first Story River novel during next year’s S.C. Book Festival, Haupt says. It hopes to publish a handful of works each year, quickly becoming a recognizable force in regional publishing.